School Settings, Not School Stories

A still from the series K-On!; K-On! is set around a school music club, but is not a school story in the traditional sense.

I wrote some time ago about how some high-school set anime bore more than a passing resemblance thematically to the other notable tradition of school-set fiction, the British public school story, in its depiction of an academic ideal which transcends simple performance in lessons and is more about building up a total ethic of dedication and effort. This article returns to the subject of school fiction and considers the other side of the issue; the student-dominated power hierachies depicted in high-school anime and how, to an observer not well-versed in Japanese social structures, this can seem alienating.

Traditionally in school fiction, there is a simple hierachy – students, more privileged students, and staff. The middle band encompasses a number of subgroups including the bullies and prefects, and in the case of something like Harry Potter the protagonists of the main plot. The dynamics between these three groups form simple grounds for conflict and moral messages; students try and resolve their dilemmas in a way which avoids the staff, who are either with or against the students but necessarily distant.

School-set anime, however, changes this power dynamic by trivialising the staff; in most school anime (with the exception of dramas about education like Aim for the Ace), the staff are absent or simply trivialised background figures, making the result no longer a school story in the traditional sense but a coming-of-age story set in a school. The setting is simply used as a reason to bring together a large group of young people and force their interactions and competition, but the story being told is not at all one of young people. Central to school-set anime are the “student council” and “class representative”; embodiments of an artificial hierachy sanctioned within the school yet more powerful than the staff. These figures are used as the core authorities within a school anime, performing administrative roles such as taking registers, administering detentions and managing society budgets that in most schools would be done by pastoral or other staff.

I am, unfortunately, not sure of the details of real school hierachies in Japan – it is likely that what is being depicted is an exaggerated or stylised version of the reality adjusted to suit the ends of the story – but what is important here is not really the “realism” of the fiction but instead what is being depicted in the same way as a British public school story reduces arguably complex dynamics to simple right-and-wrong issues. To an outside perspective, this fascination with the student council and class representative at the expense of exploring the staff-student dynamic shows clearly the approach being taken to school fiction; the stories are about telling adult narratives, of office politics, concerns about finding support for a club and so on, within the framework of youth; financial worries become concerns about finding members for a club, problems with authority become humorous altercations with the class representative about chores or homework.

That a new power dynamic is established in place of the staff-student one suggests that school anime is focused on exploring the authority issues within schools; however, it is one which is entirely insular, with minimal adult intervention. What this does is allows for the school setting to play host to bigger plots, be it ludicrous secret societies as in the series Star Driver or Revolutionary Girl Utena or even war stories as in Code Geass. What this is doing is creating an in-setting justification for having an entirely young cast in a work of fiction (for it is set mostly within the confines of a school). Yet there is an interesting side-effect to this creation of an entire hierachy of influence among young people who are ostensibly peers; it creates an uneasy depiction of maturity. Trivial issues like club membership and cleaning rotas become massive conflicts because the school setting brings the scale of the world down to childish worries – by removing the adults from society in any meaningful way, and having the children act like adults over childish issues, a strange subversion of the message of school-set fiction emerges.

Traditionally, as I mentioned before, the key message often presented in school fiction is maturing as a person and learning how to move beyond childish issues into adulthood; the dramas of school are resolved mostly among peers because there is the expectation of independence, but there are always staff present; learning to deal with strict teachers is as much a part of the process of maturation as learning to deal with personal problems without running to a higher authority. What the Japanese “school council” anime trope does is remove this message of maturing and replace it with a kind of permanent, distinct youth. The children act like adults in how they resolve problems, except when it is convenient for them not to in the name of comedy or drama (generally involving misunderstandings, or jokes about puberty). Everything is resolved without any adult intervention and the higher authority is a child who may act childishly to suit. As a result, there cannot be any kind of growing-up going on because there is no adult world as a comparator – the Japanese school anime is thus a kind of contextless social stasis dressed in recognisable clothes which characters inhabit.

So to conclude, while the school setting is still immensely popular in anime, the fetishisation of the student council as a power model undoes a lot of its core tenets to a Western observer. While it appears to be embodying the indepenent, empowered student body that is the ideal of the Western school story, it is beginning with this ideal as the norm and using it to justify a kind of stagnation of the characters – there is no process of maturation to aspire to, simply the resolution of conflicts and the softening of hard-to-like characters in a focus on personal development and overcoming flaws rather than the use of education to instil an ethos. This is perhaps why the focus is always on societies, or small social groups existing around the school but never really convincingly going to school – it is a backdrop which brings young people together and acts as a microcosm of the adult world.

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3 comments

  1. Digibro

    You should definitely watch Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight. It is the story of a student council who grows from nonexistent to encapsulating the heart of the school, but they have no real power under the adults that run the school—which is the leading drama in the series. It’s both a coming of age story for pretty much everyone in the school, and a story definitively about high school. Also an amazing series in general so gogogogogo

    • r042

      This sounds brilliant. When I’m done watching all the stuff I’m watching (which is a very long process I think) I’ll get to it.

    • IKnight

      Manabi Straight is (off the top of my head) the only ‘cute girls do cute things’ show I have really liked. It might not actually be that kind of show. This may or may not be a helpful indicator for you.

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